Thursday, August 02, 2007

iPlayer Beta experiences

BBC iPlayer Beta logo

I popped across to the BBC iPlayer webpage last Thursday night, and discovered that the “soft launch” of iPlayer Beta had itself been soft launched a few hours ahead of the published Friday morning kick off. And about 24 hours later, the invitation email arrived with a username and password to access the iPlayer Beta website.

BBC iPlayer Beta schedule browser

You need to know that iPlayer comes in two halves. There’s the (1) programme guide website. Clicking on the download link for a particular programme triggers the (2) PC client that actually downloads the requested programme (using a peer-to-peer scheme) and manages the DRM licences through Windows Media Player. (Channel 4’s VoD combines both these elements into their single Java client application.)

The issue of platform neutrality is one that is being addressed by the BBC and being monitored by the BBC Trust (see the results of the recent on-demand consultation). The Beeb are exploiting alternative cross-platform DRM solutions with Real Media, Adobe, Apple and perhaps others, while the Trust will audit progress every six months. I've lost the link, but there were rumours about Microsoft building a new DRM solution that would work across Apple/Linux/Windows operating systems as well as portable music/video devices. (Feel free to leave a comment with more info.)

Given the difficultly in categorising seven days of content across more than a handful of television channels, the programme browser user interface is pretty usable and could be a lot worse. However, there are areas ripe for improvement, including

  • adding the ability to search across the entire seven days of programmes on a particular channel (rather than only being able to filter by channel on a single day);
  • improving the page load performance (there can be a 1 second delay between clicking on a navigation button and the page schedule refreshing).

And be aware that there are classes of programme that won’t be appearing anytime soon for download, given the lack of digital download rights. So no films, no sport (hurrah!), no Welsh language (until 2008) and currently no UK news (given the lack of rights for some of the content). But be assured that Northern Ireland Questions from BBC Parliament make it onto the download list! So for anyone with poor or no digital terrestrial (Freeview) coverage, it’s not a bad way to catch up with some of the programmes you’re missing on BBC3/4.

Downloading a programme from BBC iPlayer Beta

Initial installation of the Windows client seemed to go well, and I managed to download a couple of programmes. However, when I tried to watch the downloaded shows, I got a licence error. A reboot of the PC made matters worse, bringing up repeated “Delivery Manager Service” Windows application errors indicating a problem with the kserver.exe Kontiki software. (It’s the part that shares your downloaded shows with other downloading users when your PC is online.)

A month or two ago, I’d installed Channel 4’s VoD client, and a quick scan of the iPlayer Messageboard suggests that there’s some sort of clash between the two installations. Uninstalling the BBC iPlayer software, then uninstalling Channel 4’s VoD, and then running the kclean.exe utility that you can pick up on the net to completely the Kontiki software. Oh, and just to be sure, a quick scan through the registry to remove any remaining references to kontiki. (Be confident you know what you’re doing before following my example.)

A reboot and reinstallation of the iPlayer client, and it all worked well. Phew.

Downloading some shows seem to be very slooooooow. Given the peer-to-peer nature of the downloading, it’s maybe not surprising that the less popular shows have fewer sites to download from, and it takes a bit longer. But Northern Ireland Questions took a lot longer than a West Wing episode to capture!

Overall it’s a good service. But remember it is Beta, and the bugs will need to be ironed out before the less technically savvy are encouraged to install the software. And unlike Channel 4’s VoD service, the BBC’s iPlayer catch-up service is free (well, covered by out licence fees).

If you’re not put off, you can leave your email address at the iPlayer Beta homepage, and you’ll get an invitation as they ramp up the numbers on the platform. (Note sure what the current delay is between applying and receiving an invitation with your username/password.)

A quick note on peer-to-peer (P2P). If you downloaded all the shows from a central server (like the current BBC Radio Listen-Again service, you end up with a network bottleneck as all the traffic converges on the broadcaster’s content servers. So the alternative is to download the shows you want from other people around the UK who have already downloaded them, picking up little sections of the programme from lots of people. From the BBC iPlayer help page on P2P ...

“The way P2P works means that while you download a programme or are simply online, you may also be helping upload parts of a programme file to other BBC iPlayer members. This can happen even if you’re not using BBC iPlayer and only stops if your computer isn’t online, if none of the programmes in your library are needed by other users on the network, or if all programmes have been deleted from your Library. As soon as you start to use your computer again, any uploads to others will stop. ... Some ISPs apply download and upload limits and may charge you if these are exceeded. Check with your ISP if you want to know more about limits and possible charges.”


Anonymous said...

Using P2P seems a bit of a swizz: a cheap way for the Beeb to save on server capacity, and I'm quite sure most people using it won't realise that their computer is having stuff downloaded from it by other peoplem, and wouldn't necessarily be happy if they did know.

Perhaps the glitches will be ironed out by the time it's available for Mac and I can get my hands on it.

Did I read somewhere that as well as Windows, you need to use IE for it? Blocking Firefox, Netscape, Opera etc would exclude perhaps a third of users. Maybe I picked that bit up wrong.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

No - it's currently quite restricted ... Windows XP (not 98, not Vista) and IE - though if you spoof the IE signature to make it look like it's running on XP, rumour has it that everything works ok, but it hasn't been as thoroughly tested.

With the volumes of data being thrown around for VoD services, to run on a national scale, P2P is nearly inevitable. Channel 4 (and others) are doing exactly the same - C4's VoD works on Vista (a good thing since their underlying distribution software is the same).

Not sure if readers of this blog are typical - but today's visitors reveal that 81% Windows XP, 6% MacOS, 2% Linux, and 75% IE5/6/7, 18% Firefox, 5% Safari.

(I notice that those stats are quite different from what I observed back in January ...)

And most Windows users still have IE and Windows Media Player on their machines, gathering dust.

I'm intrigued how soon they'll be able to release a Mac version - if it's early, it'll require a completely separate DRM solution. But if they wait for a cross-platform DRM, it'll be a long wait.

Anonymous said...

How does this compare to Joost , ?
From my experince Joost is pretty usable if a bit lacking on content.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Never quite got around to signing up for Joost (mostly because people were saying the content was minimal).

There's some comparison in the New Scientist Technology blog and a look at the technology over at the IP Development Network Blog ...

Anonymous said...

I have just come across this blog after using the BBCiplayer for a fortnight now.
I was initially pleased with the speed and quality of the shows using the P2P downloads until yesterday.
My Virgin internet connection is slow right now anyway (that's another story) but it seemed slower than dial-up. I thought nothing after recent problems until I began having difficulties with windows.
On closer inspection I found the "Kserver.exe" which the system uses was activating without my consent and as well as using almost all my bandwidth was also using 100% of my CPU.
Blocking it through the firewall didn't work and so I uninstalled the iplayer to give me back my PC.
Maybe I didn't read the small print but I expected more from an institution like the BBC than having to investigate any links they might have with me.
Tut tut BBC, shame on you.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Last time I installed iPlayer, the new versions are pretty upfront about the peer-to-peer aspect of downloading. Isn't there also now a tick box in the iPlayer Options to turn off sharing facility ... though leaving it on only affects your upload speeds (and any limits), not downloading. Your download speeds should only be affected when you are downloading programmes.

Anonymous said...

So, am I correct in understanding that as long as I don't download any programmes but only watch them using iplayer, then my bandwidth won't be 'interfered' with? I downloaded iplayer a couple of days ago and although I have only tried it briefly to see how it worked etc, I have noticed that my online gaming has slowed down and I have had intermittant connection losses whilst playing too. Could this have anything to do with iplayer?

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

The authoritative answer is probably to be found "straight from the horse's mouth" in the iPlayer help pages.

You don't need to download the iPlayer PC client in order to stream the programmes straight from the iPlayer website.

If you download the client but have no shows downloaded to your PC (either never downloaded, or they're all watched and deleted), then there's no ongoing bandwidth being used.

If you download a show using the iPlayer client then you could be using around 250-500MB of any download limit your broadband package enforces.

And while the programmes are sitting on your PC hard drive, and you're connected to the internet, and you have iPlayer's background application active on your PC, other iPlayer users can be served portions of those shows from your PC. (The peer-to-peer/P2P nature of the service is what makes it possible to download popular programmes relatively quickly in the first place. The load on a set of central servers would otherwise be immense.)

However, this traffic will be in the opposite direction, being uploaded from your PC out to the net, and there are few broadband packages with upload limits (given that the asymmetric part of ADSL means that upload bandwidth is a lot less than download bandwidth), and unless an ISP has set an overall bandwidth constraint (upload+download), it shouldn't matter.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that Alan, I have just now uninstalled iplayer, and, coincidence or not, have been playing online with no untoward effects whatsoever. I triple boot with a 2nd install of xp and ubuntu. I think the safest way to safeguard my gaming bandwidth will be to install iplayer onto one of those and reboot into that OS for my veiwing pleasure. That way whenever I'm not booted into the OS containing iplayer, I'm in no danger of having my bandwidth sucked dry without my knowledge. :-)